Implementing changes and reforming the workforce

Date Published: 04-05-2020

Automation or labour saving technology according to Wikipedia is the technology by which a process or procedure is performed with minimal human assistance.

In South Africa we have been slower than most countries in automating processes and some of the reasons are connectivity and electricity. Another big issue has been educating role players and government on the benefits of automation and AI (Artificial Intelligence). Most of the time as soon as you talk about automation the response is that someone will lose their job and in a country with a massive unemployment rate jobs must be protected at all costs.

What are the benefits of automation?

  • Reduced labour costs
  • Improved competitiveness
  • Increased consistency
  • Increased throughput or productivity
  • Increased predictability of quality
  • Reduces some occupational injuries
  • Frees up workers to take on other tasks
  • Replaces humans in tasks that involve monotonous work or in dangerous environments

As with everything in life there are also some disadvantages:

  • High initial deployment costs
  • Dependent on business infrastructure
  • Time needed to implement
  • Monitoring of the automation and the equipment may require some expertise

Responses differ on who you ask about automation and the future, but personally I think the Pros outweigh the Cons. Yes, in some instances there might be job losses but also new opportunities for workers to be up skilled.

In some instances there might be job losses but also new opportunities for workers to be up skilled.

Let’s think back a few decades ago when the first ATM (Automatic Teller Machine) was implemented people feared that machines would take over their jobs. That fear hasn’t stopped, yet Gartner(1) predicts that AI will create more jobs than it will replace.

AI and automation have already been established in several current technologies and found homes in various companies the world over. Widespread adoption of AI is becoming more accepted as organizations are pressed to use AI and Automation to enhance their businesses. However, employees are left wondering what the implications are for their jobs.

The truth is that technology is created to make people’s lives easier. AI and Automation are no different. Although these technologies may be ‘intelligent’ they cannot replace some human traits. It’s really a double edged sword and it’s not going to disappear. That still does not mean one should view AI and Automation as a negative but rather as a positive force for both the companies implementing it and the employees working with it.

Companies that want to prepare their workforce for these enhancements should anticipate in taking the following steps:

  • Determine the skills required in your company
  • Calm anxieties over job losses
  • Implement a culture of continuous learning

Labour unions in South Africa has been aware of the major changes in the 21st century and has seen automation and AI as a threat to the job market. But, what can labour unions do to mitigate this threat?

One major tool at the union’s disposal is protest action, which will attempt to protect their workforce. This tactic has had some success but might not be the best course of action.

The best solution from unions requires investment in the skills of the existing workforce. It is vital that all steps are taken to ensure that technological transitions are managed in a just and equal manner. A part of this is ensuring that existing employees are given the tools to develop themselves in the future so that they can leverage AI and Automation as opposed to working against it.

The best solution from unions requires investment in the skills of the existing workforce.

The question is no longer should you automate, but rather how soon you can. The benefits of automating your processes outweigh the risks by far. As there is increasing evidence demonstrating the benefits of automation and intelligent systems, more decision makers are gaining a better understanding of what these technologies can offer.

The first companies employing these systems across the board will gain a competitive advantage, reduce the cost of operations, increasing operational efficiency and innovate new products and services.

The challenge in reforming the workplace is in balancing the Pros with the (real or feared) Cons.

Gartner Says By 2020, Artificial Intelligence Will Create More Jobs Than It Eliminates

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